Color Studies

4 July, 2018. Now that my June travels have ended, numerous people have said things like “What are you up to now?” and “Must be nice to be off all summer long.” As it happens, I report back in just a few weeks so I am using every spare minute to sketch, draw, or paint. Once I’m back in the classroom, opportunities to do so will be stretched very thin for a while.

Sometime back – around a hundred days ago or so – I set myself a goal of creating 100 small gouache paintings in 100 days. I didn’t make that goal, but the point in doing so was to learn the media. And I’m feeling more and more confident as I continue to experiment with color palette, technique, and papers. Most recently I’ve been working on small color studies to explore ways to respond to light and shadow.

These are rather liberating in one sense: because the focus is on combination of color, the stress of representation is off.

A few weeks ago I wandered into a gallery and was surprised to discover they were selling work from some of my favorite artists: Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth, and Wolf Kahn, to name but a few. I’ve admired Kahn’s use of color immensely and the experience of standing in front of his monumental canvases, just soaking in the color, prompted me to begin these color studies. I want to be cautious that his influence isn’t too strong – I’d rather not wake up one day only to discover what I’m doing is simply derivative. But it’s fun and interesting, and intellectually stimulating all at the same time.

Nearly all of my recent color explorations have been in gouache. This has changed the way I’ve been approaching my sketchbook stuff: rather than working directly with a pen, I’ve been composing with pencil first to nail down shapes and proportions.

This allows me to create an inked line drawing as a second step, with time to deliberately plan out the large black negative areas that I love to incorporate into my sketches. The drama and impact of these shapes is important to me and important to composition. This also allows me to work faster in the field, because the third and final step is getting done later on.

“Later on,” because I want to ponder how color will affect the way each composition gets “read.” I am trying to take advantage of the three values: black ink, white gel pen ink, and gray of the paper, while at the same time purposely selecting areas of color painted in gouache. The effect is interesting because there are areas that are rendered that contrast with areas that are flat. It feels to me as if the space is being redefined by the lines, color, and the choice to leave some of it untouched.

There’s also a sort of storybook character to these illustrations, and that narrative quality intrigues me to no end.

I said nearly all of my color work had been made with gouache, but earlier this week I felt like working on something large. So I got out my butcher tray and watercolor kit, a couple of really big brushes, and a full sheet of Arches. This particular scene from Menemsha has been in the back of my mind for a couple weeks now – no idea why. I don’t feel like the watercolor, regardless of the scale, does it justice and may take another stab at it. This one feels to me like a study rather than a finished piece.



  1. Sigrun · July 4

    I just read this, which may also be of interest to you:
    «All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own»
    — Oliver Sacks

    • azorch · July 4

      Oliver Sacks, of course! One of the great thinkers … his words have often been those that help me to think straight.

  2. Diana · July 5

    How do you use the gouache in your plein aire painting? I once had an instructor who said gouache couldn’t be reconstituted and that you had to use what you had out while it was still wet.

    • azorch · July 5

      I’ve heard that said also, and I’m pleased to say it’s a bit of a myth. It’s relatively easy to reconstitute dried gouache actually… I’ve even got a couple of student grade gouache kits with dry full pans. Apparently they were designed that way – dry, that is.

      So here’s the trade off with reconstituting gouache… it loses some opacity because it’s getting watered down and so it’s thinner. I struggled with that for a while and then remembered I have a couple of Masterson Sta-Wet palettes I hadn’t used in years. These palettes are air tight and have a sort of thin sponge bottom layer that you wet. On top of that is a very durable replaceable/reusable/washable piece of palette paper that acts as the mixing surface. It’s soaked and keeps the paint moist. I find it will keep the paint moist for weeks, in fact. And even if a blog dries up in the air, once you seal the lid the paint is back to working consistency again the next day. I’ve got one really large palette which is almost entirely useless for my purposes, and two small versions that are easy to carry and work wonderfully.

      OK, that said, just about any paint can be used in situ if you work out a plan before heading out into the field. I rely on a limited palette – sometimes just four tubes – so that makes carrying easier. One or two water brushes that can be refilled from my drinking bottle, and a paper towel. I’m painting on Bristol (when I use a white ground) or more recently on the gray toned ground paper in the Stillman and Birn sketchbooks. I bought a gray toned pad made by Strathmore and it works ok, but is lighter weight and more absorbent than the Stillman and Birn stock. I want the gouache to sit on top of the surface rather than soak in.

      A gouache kit is slightly bulkier to carry than watercolors, but nowhere near the bulk of even a pared down oil kit. It’s an acceptable compromise, frankly. For me, I’ve missed working with oils but decided years ago to forgo all of the solvents. Gouache can be worked a little more thickly (like oils) and while it’s definitely not the same thing, same look, or same technique, still it kind of reminds me of them in a way… at least the way I apply the paint.

      Sorry for the lengthy response! I respectfully disagree with your instructor: gouache can be reconstituted. It can also be used in the field (well… you know… unless you’re in a rainstorm…) 🙂

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